Espresso Beans vs Coffee Beans: What’s the Difference?

Anyone who has ever bought coffee from the supermarket will have noticed that beans are often separated into a few different categories. There’s decaf (which we don’t mention around these parts except for educational purposes), espresso beans and coffee beans.

These final two classifications might surprise casual coffee drinkers. After all, aren’t the same coffee beans used universally in all brewing methods?

The answer is yes. A coffee bean is a coffee bean and they’re all used across the board in all types of different brewing methods. The distinct difference between espresso beans and coffee beans, however, comes down to how they’re roasted and ultimately prepared.

When you see two differently labelled bags in the supermarket, you’re looking at a recommendation from the producer about how the respective beans should be consumed. In theory you could grind up espresso beans and prepare it as pour-over coffee. However, you’ll likely end up with a brew that is way too bitter and intense (although some people prefer it this way).

These distinctions therefore make it important to know the difference between espresso beans and coffee beans. Arm yourself with this knowledge so you don’t accidentally bring home a light drip-blend when you want a sharp espresso in the morning.

But what are the differences in detail between espresso beans and coffee beans? Let’s take a look below.


A Layman’s Guide to Espresso

Before we dive deep into the differences between espresso beans and coffee beans, it’s important to define what an espresso is.

What is espresso and how is it made?

The saying “dynamite comes in small packages” is particularly apt when talking about espresso. Unlike other brewing methods which can sometimes produce prodigious amounts of coffee, espresso is brewed in much more moderate volumes.

But to achieve this small shot of espresso requires a lot of power, pressure, and a dedicated espresso machine. To start with you’re going to need a very finely ground coffee. If the grind is too coarse then the water will simply pass through too easily and very little flavor will be extracted.

Once ground to the correct fineness, the ground is packed very tightly into a container called a portafilter. You’ve no doubt seen baristas snapping these in and out of espresso machines as they dump spent grounds and load in fresh ones.

The way the grounds are packed in is extremely important. To get it right you should be using about thirty to forty pounds of pressure in order to form a tight “puck” of coffee. This is achieved with the help of a tool called a tamper.

A tamper helps apply steady, even pressure so that you end up with a neat, tight puck of coffee ready for the espresso machine. If you want to get your hands on the best coffee tamper, check out our guide on the subject.

Once your coffee is tamped, the portafilter is then snapped into the espresso machine and hot water is forced through the puck of packed coffee grinds. The whole process is quite fast at around 25 to 30 seconds, and utilizes around 9 bars of pressure in order to extract the coffee. The resulting brew is thick, dense, intense and, if everything was done correctly, should sport an luxurious espresso crema on top.

An espresso crema is the creamy top layer of the espresso that looks lighter in color to the rest of the brew. It’s formed by the carbon dioxide released by the coffee interacting with the hot water and pressure during the brewing process in the espresso machine.

The crema is a good indicator as to how your espresso has turned out. If it’s too light it means you have under-extracted your espresso and may need to more tightly pack your coffee. If it’s too dark it means you’ve over-extracted your coffee, and it’s likely going to taste extremely bitter.

It takes some practice but you’ll eventually nail the espresso shot and have the perfect crema. Once you’ve achieved this you can now use the espresso shot the basis for a number of other coffee drinks such as an Americano or Macchiato.

If you need help or assistance, you can read more about how to make a perfect espresso shot every time with our guide.


A Layman’s Guide to Ordinary Coffee

Now that we’ve looked at how espresso is made, let’s breakdown the other brewing methods that use ordinary coffee beans.

What are the different brewing methods for non-espresso coffee?

When it comes to ordinary coffee beans there are quite a few different ways in which they can be brewed and prepared. This is influenced by many factors including the type of bean being used, the roast, and the growing conditions (more on these below). But for now we’re simply going to list them briefly.

Pour-over

The pour-over method is one of the most simple, especially if you’re brewing coffee at home. It requires nothing more than a filter-holder, a filter, ground coffee and hot water. In some cases you don’t even need to buy a separate filter.

Check out our guide about the best pour-over coffee makers if you’d like to know more.

AeroPress

The AeroPress is a wonderful invention, and one of the only truly revolutionary coffee devices to have rocked the market in recent years. Like the espresso method, it uses pressure to produce a thick and intense shot of coffee. However, it relies on human muscle as opposed to a machine to get the job done and can’t generate as much pressure as an espresso machine.

That being said, many people loved the AeroPress and vehemently state that it gives the espresso a run for its money. We personally don’t think it measures up in terms of intensity and flavor, but the AeroPress is still a great method for brewing good coffee.

Cold Brew

Cold brew coffee is one of most interesting ways of using ordinary coffee beans because it relies on an extremely slow immersion method for extraction. Ground coffee is placed in a filter and immersed in room-temperature water for up to a day. The result is a coffee concentrate that, once mixed with milk or water, provides a beautifully smooth brew ideal for hot days.

If you’d like to take a foray into cold brew, this article will guide you through the process.

French Press

Perhaps the most ubiquitous method of brewing coffee on the planet, the French press also uses ordinary coffee beans and an immersion technique for brewing. Grinds are placed in the carafe along with hot water. After a few minutes the solids are plunged to the bottom, separating solids from liquid, and leaving behind a delicious, quite intense brew.

The brewing process is quite intricate, but you can learn how to use a French press here.


Espresso Beans vs Coffee Beans: Differences at a Glance

Espresso BeansCoffee Beans
Espresso beans are coffee beans but usually ones that are of a “dark roast” variety.Coffee beans refer to any and all types of beans used for brewing coffee and are available in a number of different types of roast.
The dark roast ensures that the final shot of espresso is dark, aromatic and intense.Lightly roasted coffee beans are a light brown color and have no oily finish. They’re roasted this way to highlight the unique characteristics of the bean’s origins and growing conditions.
Espresso beans also produce a crema – a rich, velvety finish that sits on top of the espresso.Medium roasted coffee beans have a more rounded flavor profile while also bringing out the deeper sweetnesses of the coffee bean.
Espresso beans are ideal for brewing under extremely high pressure and bringing out bold, robust and intense flavors.Dark roasted coffee is a dark brown color and has an oily sheen. These beans have low acidity levels, a heavy body, and way more developed, intense flavors.

Espresso Beans vs Coffee Beans: Detailed Breakdown

Now that we’ve seen what makes these beans different at a glance, let’s take a more comprehensive look at their unique qualities.

The Beans

As we mentioned briefly above, when it comes to espresso beans vs coffee beans there’s absolutely no difference at all in the actual bean. Many people make the mistake of thinking that espresso beans and regular coffee beans come from different plants due to the way they’re marketed.

But in fact both varieties of coffee are grown from the same plant – either Arabica or Robusta – and are processed in the same way after the harvest. The process that separates them into two distinct “types” of beans comes later.

The Roast

The real difference between espresso beans and coffee beans comes down to the roast. Espresso beans tend to fall into the dark roast category. The reason for this has to do with espresso’s intense flavor and robust body.

To reach a level of dark roast, coffee beans are roasted until an internal temperature of about 465-480°F is achieved. Roasters generally stop when they’ve achieved what is known as the second crack. This is an audible sound that lets them know that the bean is starting to break down and is ready to be removed from the roaster.

When you put coffee grinds under so much pressure and heat, lighter roasts don’t hold up well. The final product after brewing is often a thin and flavorless liquid which won’t hold up to the standards of espresso that we all know and love. Using a dark roast means you can really tease the darker, more intense flavors out of the bean and get a stable but potent flavor profile.

Lighter roasts are typically relegated to other methods of brewing coffee such as the French press or pour over. That being said, you still find that some people who prefer stronger coffee opt to use dark roasts even more for conventional brewing methods. After all, all espresso beans are coffee beans, and that means that certain coffee beans can be used for espresso, and vice versa.

The Brewing Method

The second important distinction between espresso beans and coffee beans has to do with the brewing method. To make a shot of espresso the coffee needs to be ground up very finely and packed extremely tightly. You also need specialist, dedicated equipment in order to generate enough heat and pressure to extract the best flavor out of the coffee.

These factors combined result in a shot of espresso that is rich, thick and with a velvety finish.

It’s worth pointing out that you’re way less likely to find espresso being made in the home as a direct result of the need for an espresso machine. These are serious pieces of equipment which can cost thousands of dollars, meaning it’s often more cost-effective to simply grab an espresso at a cafe. In fact it’s a wonder at all that an espresso will set you back on $1.75 at Starbucks considering the prohibitive price of an espresso machine.

Coffee beans, on the other hand, don’t need an expensive machine and can be brewed in a variety of different methods. From using a French press, Chemex, Aeropress or even just a paper filter, there are numerous ways of extracting ordinary coffee beans. However, the tradeoff is that none of these methods will be able to capture the intensity and full-body that using an espresso machine provides.

The Caffeine Content

If you had to make a bet on which type of coffee contained a higher amount of caffeine, would you choose espresso or another type of coffee? If you mentally chose espresso, we wouldn’t blame you, but you would be wrong.

It all comes down to volume. One shot of espresso contains around 40-75mg of coffee depending on the roast and where it was grown. An average cup of pour-over, however, can easily contain up to 185mg of caffeine.

Drop for drop espresso does contain more caffeine, but at the end of the day you’re not drinking gallons of the stuff. On the other hand, if you work at an office you’re very likely to have three lattes before lunch, and that caffeine quickly adds up.

The Taste

And what is the culmination of all these different processes and brewing methods? The taste, of course. Most people would be able to discern the difference between an espresso and another brewing method straight away.

A shot of espresso made from espresso beans is dark, with a well-rounded body and intense flavor profile. It’s a much more concentrated and, some would say, bolder taste than other types of coffee. You often find that very smoky, almost caramelized flavors make themselves more pronounced when brewing espresso.

Ordinary coffee beans on the other hand tend to produce less intense flavors. This trade off for flavored is balanced out by the fact that you have more control of the brewing variables and final taste than you do with espresso.

Many baristas prefer this as they’re better able to control the extraction and manipulate the final flavor according to their tastes.

This is especially true for single-origin beans, or roasts that contain delicate flavors that have to be teased out with fastidious brewing methods.

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